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Even on a 'Secret' Garden Tour,
There's Always Time For Opera
by Mort Levine

Our summertime travels took us to England and a swing through a sample of her hidden away gardens, some surrounding huge manor houses, others in suburban backyards and private dense urban garden squares in London. But there was still time for some outstanding opera.

The highlight was an unusual treatment of Arabella, the final collaboration of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal which we saw in 1980 with a youthful Kiri Te Kanawa. In my memory that production remains a pretty shallow vehicle. But in the Covent Garden production this summer, a splendid cast took a reconceived opera and gave it enough stature to rank it as a true successor to Der Rosenkavalier. The plot is admittedly creaky: an impoverished upper class family tries desperately to find a rich mate for their oldest daughter (Karita Mattila in the title role) while disguising the younger sister (Barbara Bonney, an outstanding mezzo singing Zdenka) as a boy to save money on debutante balls. Zdenka pines for Matteo, a young ardent suitor of Arabella's (sung by tenor Raymond Very).

The wealthy romantic hero who in the end solves everything is Mandryka, a mysterious feudal lord from somewhere in the Balkans. The dashing baritone, a pony-tailed Thomas Hampson, put his stamp on this role as his own with a swashbuckling effort that swept the cool, elegant Mattila off her feet.

Set in the current day in the atrium of a razzle dazzle kind of shopping mall/theme park, this is the kind of Euro treatment which San Francisco Opera audiences are getting used to. And in this case it really worked. With Conductor Christoph von Dohnányi's masterful meting out of the Straussian melodies, from frivolity to sad pathos, it became an opera to savor for a long time to come.

We also caught up with a work which is slated for San Francisco because ACT is a co-producer. This is Black Rider, the collaboration of folksong composer Tom Waits with one of the beat generation's heroes, the late William Burroughs, and an inventive director/set designer Robert Wilson. Subtitled "The Casting of the Magic Bullets", Black Rider is a mélange of the Faust legend, Der Freischütz by Von Weber and a bit of Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht's Three Penny Opera.

The Mephistopheles character is called Pegleg, and it is sung in a white-faced mask by popular singer-actress Marianne Faithful. The highly stylized story recounts the tale of a callow youth who works as a clerk. He can't get permission to marry the forester's daughter unless he learns to be as good a shot as some of her other suitors. He makes his pact with the devil for some magic bullets that bring down lots of game, wasting them all showing off his prowess. But to get one last bullet to win his bride, he must pay the devil's price. It was a bullet that found its mark in the heart of the bride.

Some might be reluctant to call Black Rider an opera. Perhaps musical theatre might be a better description. This brutally tragic, sinister tale, although now about fifteen years old, has a special resonance for the world we find ourselves in today.

(SJOG Newsletter July, 2004 Issue)

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